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Kenny Barron: The Traveler

A rather unlikely group of musicians tag along with Kenny Barron on The Traveler, making the pianist’s latest studio excursion all the more colorful and, at times, intriguing.

Guests include three vocalists with markedly different styles-Ann Hampton Callaway, Grady Tate, Gretchen Parlato-and when the focus is on their contributions, the performances are dreamy, urbane and haunting by turns. Parlato’s appearance on the aptly titled “Phantoms” (music by Barron, lyrics by Janice Jarrett) is particularly enjoyable, perfectly in sync with an otherworldly arrangement that features guitarist Lionel Loueke. It’s one of three tunes on the album that takes advantage of Loueke’s unique blend of dexterity and imagination. His most adventurous turn comes on “Duet,” a rhythmically kinetic and often freely improvised pairing of acoustic guitar and piano.

Long before Loueke arrives on the scene, though, soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson leaves a strong impression, first on the album’s winding title theme, then on the exhilarating bop anthem “Speed Trap.” Both are quartet performances, deftly shaded or briskly propelled by bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Francisco Mela. Saved for last is Barron’s solo performance of “Memories of You”-a thoroughly delightful coda.

In 1986, bassist Harvie S enlisted Barron for a series of duets, and though a tape rolled, both musicians played for the sheer pleasure of collaborating with each other. Now the pleasure is ours, courtesy of a long-shelved recording devoted almost entirely to pop and jazz standards.

As impromptu as this pairing was, S didn’t leave the leave the arrangements to chance. The emphasis is on melodic development, an art that Barron long ago mastered, and instead of punctuating the arrangements every now and then with an improvised chorus or two, S follows suit, displaying a warm, lyrical touch on “Body and Soul,” “Darn That Dream” and other ballads that inspire woven lines and textured moods. Bracketing the selections are two of the album’s highlights: a vibrant, free-spirited take on “Confirmation”; and a soulful, bass-only recital of “Chelsea Bridge.”

Originally Published